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Challenge: Expert Advice

Counterflow parent: Sometimes if I’m dysregulated and stressed, it’s because I'm in the wrong lane.

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Back in 2005, my husband and I loaded our 14-month-old daughter, two beagles, and irreplaceable belongings in a silver RAV4 at 2:00 in the morning. Hoping to beat the traffic leaving Houston, we headed west on I-10 toward San Antonio, fleeing Hurricane Rita as it approached soon after Hurricane Katrina had left New Orleans in tatters.

With a large percentage of the city’s population trying to evacuate, the traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, or not at all. Our idea to beat the traffic by leaving in the middle of the night was, apparently, not so original. The evacuation route was completely clogged with all of us trying to do the same thing. It took us 14 hours to make the usual three-hour trip to San Antonio.

As we all tried to cram onto the same road, going the same way, doing the same thing, we were ineffective in our travel. Unable to get from point A to point B, we were frustrated, running out of gas, needing food or a restroom.

People were arguing on the roads. Nobody was at their best. At the time, stuck in three to five lanes of gridlock, I remember looking longingly at the few cars traveling east into Houston on the counterflow lanes. Taking their own route, they moved more efficiently.

In my work as a pediatrician for more than 20 years, I have observed thousands of parents. Some crowd onto the road of this-is-what-you-have-to-do, only to get stuck, frustrated with themselves and their children when things don’t work as planned.

I have done that myself, filling our family schedule to provide opportunities for my kids. I didn’t want them to feel left out if they didn’t do this or that. I didn’t want to feel left out, either. And there’s enough of a competitive spirit in me that I wanted them to excel, too. As parents, we try so hard in today’s society. At times, we even try too hard, losing sight of what matters and what doesn’t.

Through the years, I have observed another type of parent — those who find their own lane and pace. Less concerned with what others are doing, they simply let their kids find their own way through childhood with love, gentle guidance and firm boundaries. They are in a slower lane. They take their own route.

I have been a parent for 19 years and, at times, I have slipped into the wrong lane. Hoping for maximum performance outcomes for the humans in my care, I parented like I felt I was supposed to, pushing my kids as I went and stressing myself out along the way.

I have more recently realized I need to be a counterflow parent. I don’t do well in the clogged lane. I get overwhelmed in the fast lane. I need to find the lane that simply lets my kids grow into the adult humans they were created to be. The rest of the noise truly doesn’t matter.

I am still learning, many times from the parents I see every week in my practice. I suppose I will always be learning. Every week I watch parents try and fail, and try and succeed. I have seen what works, and what works is not always what the parents on the clogged highway are doing.

If you’re feeling dysregulated, or if you’re irritable or agitated more than not, take a look at what lane you’re in. Are you there because that’s where you want to be? Or are you there because that’s where you think you should be? Maybe it’s time to change lanes, or even the entire road.

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